Everywhere you turn around, something is claiming to be the next Game of Thrones.
In some cases, the comparison lives up to the hype. Such is the case with Angus Macallan’s Gates of Stone, a brutally violent clash of rulers, set in a fantasy world built from Macallan’s experiences living in Asia. Stretching from a Russia-like north and devoting most of the narrative to Laut Besar, an Indonesian-like island setting, Gates of Stone features ruthless individuals seeking to take, and hold, their power, and reshape the world in their own images. In some cases, those characters are likable—and even heroic—and others may very well be characters the readers love to hate.
The novel opens with Katerina, the daughter of the Khevan Emperor and—she thought—heir to the throne of the Ice Bear. But when she’s told that her cousin will become emperor, by virtue of being born a man, she’s determined to prove she’s just as capable of ruling an empire as any man. Indeed, she’s determined to create one of her own, which requires the first-chapter slaughter of her newly wedded husband, so that she can begin her plans of world domination.
Katerina’s chapters alternate with the stories of Farhan, a scheming merchant who doubles as a spy for the powerful Indujah Federation; and Jun, a prince of Wukarta, whose lazy life of smoking obat (an opium-like drug) and composing poetry are upturned by the murder of his father at the hands of the evil sorcerer Mangku. Jun, guided by a mysterious old man called Semar, follows Mangku to reclaim a family heirloom—and, in the process, thwart the sorcerer’s plans to collect the Seven Keys that would open the gates of the Seven Hells, and destroy all humans in Laut Besar except the indigenous Ebu people, now treated by all as the lowest caste of humanity in the islands.
The three stories intersect and intertwine in unexpected ways and, throughout, the magic, religion, and politics of Laut Besar are revealed. Many of the names of the political groups have real-world analogues: the Cossacks, the Franks, and the Han. The naming conventions allowed Macallan a sort of shorthand, giving readers an instant association with certain groups. But don’t mistake the novel for an alternate history…
“It is an entirely imaginary world,” Macallan told Den of Geek. While the events are entirely fictional, Macallan continued, “the people, the religions, the societies are all inspired by the real region and its real history. The Laut Besar … is basically the Java Sea. (Laut Besar is Indonesian for Big Sea.) And the pirate society in Gates is modeled on the Malay pirate society of the region in the 18th century.”
“Ruthless local seaborne raiders ruled the waves (before the Western colonialists took control), stealing from their neighbors, enslaving them, burning their settlements, then sailing away with their loot—and sometimes their severed heads as trophies.”
As Macallan went on to point out, it isn’t just “rapacious white men” who have been responsible for colonialism throughout history, but any group in power that takes advantage of the comparative weakness of another group. In Gates of Stone, there are contemporary powers all seeking advantage over the others—seeking to expand their own empires, and colonize the lands of others—as well as a long history of the “New People” who colonized Laut Besar and subjugated the native Ebu people.
As is true of the historical setting from which it draws its inspiration, the world of Gates of Stone is rife with violence and hatred of the other. In some cases, this is nationalism: the Buginese hate the Han, who are dismissive of the Dokra, and all of them despise the Ebu and their Dewa descendants.
“The idea of the indigenous Ebu and their Dewa descendants comes from the idea of ‘untouchables’ in India, people who are now called Dalit,” Macallan told Den of Geek. “This group, often the poorest of the poor, are considered filthy and disgusting by many of their fellow countrymen, purely because of their lineage and membership of this particular social caste.”
“The touch of a Dalit used to be considered defiling, in fact, if even their shadow touched yours a ritual of purification had be be undergone. It’s quite a difficult concept for us to get our heads round in the 21st century. It’s hideous naked racism pure and simple. Historically these people did the nastiest jobs in society, working with meat and bodily fluids—butchers, tanners, undertakers, sewer workers—doing jobs that no one else wanted to do.”
“The Japanese also have this idea of untouchability and a similar group of much-discriminated against people called Burakumin. About 60 per cent of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) are said to be Burakumin. When I first came across the idea of untouchability, I was appalled and I wondered how these folk felt about themselves—did they share the general disgust, were they consumed with self-loathing?—and how did they feel about the rest of society which had categorised them as such.”
The racism against the Ebu—and the sexism present in the Khevan Empire—are driving factors for two of the most ruthless characters of the series. And of course, because they are facing such long, ingrained wrongs of their societies, neither really believes themselves to be a villain. Mangku, despised because of his race, seeks out a power that will allow him to destroy the New People and reclaim the islands for the Ebu.
“Katerina is just as ruthless as Mangku—but she’s young and pretty and privileged, so I suppose that makes her worse. But I like her,” Macallan confessed. “She’s my favorite character. When I was thinking up her story arc, I imagined her behaving like a male character—strong, determined, flawed but forgivable—and I still sometimes do that thought exercise. I’d say what she does—the murders, the mutilation, the manipulation—only seem egregious because she’s a hot young woman. OK, fine, I’ll admit she is pretty bad. But I still love her.”
While the Game of Thrones comparisons are almost certainly there to help new readers find the novel, George R. R. Martin’s books and the television series based on it served as inspirations for Macallan. But real history also provided fodder for the author, who writes historical fiction under his real name, Angus Donald.
“History is my real muse,” he told Den of Geek. “From Homer to Tom Holland, I read as much about the real historical struggles of humanity as I can, and I am constantly surprised and entertained, and sometimes shocked and appalled, by the breadth and depth of the human experience over the past three millennia.”
Gates of Stone shows that passion for history, and for the exploration of the human condition in all its facets: heroic, suffering, shocking, and worthy of admiration.
Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.